I have friends who knew from the time they were young’uns that they wanted to be writers when they grew up. I don’t know how a child knows such a thing. I loved reading from an early age but I never gave much thought to how books happened. When I was young, I can’t say I ever thought about the writers of books, or how a person got such a job.
You’ve probably heard me say it before but it is the honest truth – growing up I mostly only thought about the jobs I didn’t want to have. For instance, I didn’t want to grow up to be an inmate in the county jail or the federal prison like some of my kin.
I kept diaries throughout my youth but not necessarily because I just had to write, or because I needed to log the day’s activities. I kept them because I had things I needed to say to somebody, and as a military brat girlfriends were hard to come by. My siblings were my most constant companions and there are just some things you can’t tell a younger sister or older brother.
It seems totally unconceivable to me now, after the untold essays I’ve written, the opinion pieces, the books, that I really never thought about being a writer until Oregon poet/author George Venn identified me as one. I was nearly 40 years old. In fact, I began my first journalism job on my 40th birthday.
That’s the honest truth. It was on my birthday. A friend working at the local newspaper asked me to come work for them even though I didn’t even know what a lede was or how to write one, much less report on something.
I learned it all the way people have been learning for centuries – I learned it by doing it.
The very first writers workshop I attended was at the University of Mississippi. Barry Hannah and Padgett Powell were teaching, along with guest John Berendt, author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The year was 1996. At that point I had never heard of Julia Reed, William Dunlap, Cynthia Shearer, Rick Bragg, Lewis Nordan, Jere Hoar, William Gay, Ralph Eubanks or many others.
Of course, as an avid NPR listener, I was in awe of Bailey White, who was also present. A Georgia girl like me. Still it never occurred to me all those years ago that some of these writers would become my friends. The thought of being published was just a notion George Venn had put into my head when he pulled me into his office one day and announced: You are a writer.
And I laughed.
The thought that I might actually tell stories on NPR one day the way Bailey White did seemed ridiculous.
I would return to Ole Miss several times over the years, sometimes to attend the Conference on the Book. Sometimes to be a presenter myself. I came to love and admire many of those writers I met in Oxford: poet Beth Ann Fennelly, Tom Franklin, Rick Bragg, Lee Smith, Ralph Eubanks, and of course, Julia Reed and Barry Hannah.
Jere Hoar sent me the sweetest note after one of my presentations telling me that he was expecting great things from me in the future.
Barry Hannah called me out of an audience once to tell me I should be on the panel. I have notes from Barry as well.
I first met John Green at Oxford’s conference and adored him from the get-go.
Ralph Eubanks became a mentor and friend, someone I turn to again and again for insights on race and life and writing.
Rick Bragg wrote a memoir that broke my heart and made me cheer for single moms the world over, and the kids who love them.
I made my very first trip to Faulkner’s grave in the middle of a moonless night along with a group of inebriated writers that included Tom Franklin and Jim McWhorter.
I could not find my way in the dark to that grave again, even sober.
These are some of the stories I told Tim as we made our first trek together to Ole Miss, to Rowan Oak, to Faulkner’s grave in the middle of a day when everyone else was sitting in a church pew, possibly hungover from a late night at City Grocery.
It was at the John Grisham residency home that I first met Tayari Jones and fell in love with her work. And it was there that Sebastian Junger and I had an in-depth conversation about war, long before either of us ever imagined a war in Iraq. Long before I would met a girl named Wendy Grisham who would become a beloved friend.
Tim didn’t know these stories because so much of a writer’s life is lived out in solitude. Tim and I rarely get the opportunity to travel together the way we have done for the past month. As you might imagine spouses and partners get bored listening to a writer on book tour. It’s a bit like groundhog day. You travel from city to city, telling the same stories over and over about the book you’ve just published.
So many of the people I know Tim has never met. This trip afforded him the opportunity to come to know some of those people I love and admire most – writers and readers alike.
We spent hours perusing the shelves at Square Books, where I picked up a copy of one of Barry Hannah’s books and recalled as I read through the short stories, what a great wit Hannah was, and what a generous sweet soul. I know a lot of people associate Oxford with Larry Brown, a tremendous talent gone way too soon. I never got to know Larry, however, or of him until he was passed. But Silas House, whom I have long admired, has written eloquently of the influence Brown had on his work.
Speaking with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly about his most recent book, A Place Like Mississippi, Ralph Eubanks remarked upon the community of writers that gathers at City Grocery to celebrate one another.
Celebrating our community of friends and family is what propelled Tim and I to undertake this road adventure.
Being able to travel with him back to the place from which much of my writing career drew its inspiration was the perfect way to wrap up this month-long journey.
When we pull into our driveway in Oregon later today, we will carry more than just our suitcases and loads of new books into the house. For the rest of our lives, we will carry the memories of so many of you who welcomed us into your homes and your hearts. We will repeat stories of you and your generosity over and over again. And we will recall with gratefulness the laughter shared, and the friendships deepened.
There’s an open invitation to you each to come sit a spell on our porch anytime. We can’t wait to hug your necks again.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Burdy (Mercer University Press).